Dark Side Of The Earth

Trip Start Jul 29, 2006
Trip End Sep 03, 2006

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Flag of Korea Dem Peoples Rep  , Gangwon,
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Next days hike took us more than 1200 metres up a mountainside topped with wondrous, almost alien rock features. Kumgangsan is famous for its unusual granite and diorite rock formations, and on the hike we passed a tower of stone jutting out over the path, topped by a rock that looked distinctly like a seal. Some 12000 unique formations have been counted on the peaks of Kumgangsan, but we spent much of our time focused simply on getting up the mountain.

I've hiked since I was a kid, over years and untold kilometers in Ontario and the Maritimes, and it's one of the outdoor activities I take great pleasure in. My legs are strong and my mind enjoys the plodding momentum and prospect of great scenery. But this hike was truly something else.

The trip had started on a switchback road leading up to the base of the mountain, where our bus was one of more than a dozen in the convoy. From the drop off point we had a deceptively easy walk to the base, where the trail took a dramatic turn into a gully to the right, exposing the steep rise of the mountainside and the peaks above shrouded in clouds. Rocks and boulders filled the gully, where in spring the pass must be impenetrable with quick-running rivers of melted ice and snow.

A cement path rather like a staircase lead up the left bank of the gully and we were soon scaling an incline over 45 degrees while the mountain loomed ahead and the valley below dropped off a meter or so from the path. The climb was not unlike the Juyong Pass of the Great Wall of China, but while there was a feeling of pilgrimage and history on the Great Wall on this climb the raw nature and might of the mountain seemed to sap the will.

With only a few gulps of water in my bottle and nowhere to refresh the supply I kept my mind on my feet and stopped often to rest and stare in awe. And unlike the Great Wall, where the upper-most guard tower was almost always in sight, on the mountainside there was no telling how much further it was to the top, nor anyway of judging how far I'd come.

But when the trail finally ended, at the Mangyangdae cliff near the mountain's peak, the view surpassed anything I'd imagined. Looking west the mountain dropped away toward the flat green fields and sandy beaches on the East Sea, while behind us, threaded with white, wispy clouds, were the other peaks and tree covered valleys of Kumgangsan. It was literally a pinnacle moment in all of my travels.

And all to soon it was time to walk back down, where our buses were waiting to take us to the hotel and back to Seoul. I would have like to see more, but the real experience of North Korea is not to be had on a mountain but in the capital. After my first visit to the DMZ and the hiking tour of Kumgangsan, the next stop is Pyongyang.

Why am I so fascinated by North Korea? I'm not ideologically sympathetic. I find Kim Jong il and his regime repellent. It's more about my own curiosity and desire to know. What do North Korean's think about the outside world? What do they think about themselves? How do they feel? What are they thinking? In Kumgangsan it's possible for Koreans North and South to talk to each other, though certainly the North Koreans are heavily screened and monitored.

As a foreigner it was much more difficult to communicate, not least of all because my Korean is not good enough. What little we know about average North Koreans comes from state-approved documentaries and defectors. There are no public telephone connections with the country, nor email, Internet, free radio or television channels.

State-run media feeds propaganda into the homes of its citizens via a Big Brother-like speaker that can be turned down but not switched off. Anyone wealthy enough to own a television can tune into news featuring a stiffed-backed anchor yelling anti-American diatribes and trumped up stories about the Dear Leader.

What do North Koreans know about the outside world, and do they doubt their own "worker's paradise". The two Germanys were separated for 40 years but the East was never as isolated or completely ideologically dominated as North Korea.

I'm fascinated by what North Korea has become, a totalitarian state as terrifying as any George Orwell imagined, ostensibly ruled by a long dead president and a cult of personality unique in the world.

North Korea is a failed state, but not one defined by the characteristics of other failed nations; civil war, endemic disease and poverty, corruption and neo-colonialism. What other failed state can build a nuclear weapon?

Perhaps the reality of North Korea is tied up in the 5000-year history of Korea as a whole, which for long periods was isolated, indifferent and belligerent. For centuries Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom and turned it's back on the outside world.

Modern North Korea is one of the few, relatively developed places on earth where such a large population (23,000,000 people) lives under almost complete darkness at night because there is not enough electricity to keep the lights on. Satellite images of the Korean Peninsula taken at night show a distinct black void between South Korea and China. Even Pyongyang suffers frequent blackouts.

North Korea is truly in a league of it's own. Soviet Russia, Burma, Cuba, no country has ever come close to being as surreal and cut off from the rest of the world. To see it from the inside, even a toned-down, choreographed glimpse as afforded by the Kumgangsan Tourist Region, was money well spent. And despite all the little brown soldiers, and the menace of the DMZ, North Korea was probably the safest country I've ever traveled, with zero risk of muggings, theft or any bad tidings from the locals.

As we left Kumgangsan for the border posts on the DMZ I watched the countryside blur by content with my first look into North Korea. At the immigration tent the entire convoy of tour buses was held up for several hours as dozens of our fellow tourists were processed for fines incurred while in Kumgangsan, such as the American on our bus who'd spilled water on his ID badge.

We all had to carry one around our necks when in North Korea, papers stowed in a clear plastic holder showing our photos, names and other details. Unlike other nations North Korea doesn't issue visa stamps in passports, so when we entered and left, the ID badge was stamped and ultimately taken away, showing no history of us ever being in the country. The American was charge $10US for his infraction and even got a receipt, which for sentimental value was worth more than the fine.

Walking back to my bus I passed a North Korean soldier stationed along the road. He was tall, dark skinned and slender, with a broad, handsome face set in an impenetrable glare. We locked eyes as I walked by, in a brief but intense moment before I was passed him and dared not look back, but I could discern nothing from his gaze.

I was returning to a land of commerce and opportunity, of high speed Internet and legal rights, while he remained, on the proverbial dark side of the moon, where in the evening the heavens are filled with stars because North Korea has not enough electricity to obscure the night sky.
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